China’s ‘beautiful Xinjiang’ continues to oppress Uighurs

As Beijing tries to convince the world that the Xinjiang region has moved on, its Uighur residents continue to suffer.

A Uighur demonstrator takes part in a protest
Ethnic Uighur demonstrators take part in a protest against a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Turkish capital, near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on July 26, 2023 [File: Reuters/Dilara Senkaya]

During his visit to the Chinese province of Xinjiang on August 26,  Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that the predominantly Muslim Uighur region is enjoying some “hard-won social stability”, and that it is moving toward “unity, harmony and prosperity”. This image of “beautiful Xinjiang”, which Xi talked about, stands in sharp contrast with the reporting of the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

A report OHCHR released last year concluded that since 2017, the Chinese government had committed grave rights violations against millions of Uighurs and other Turkic people in Xinjiang, abuses so systematic and widespread that they “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

The Chinese authorities have long insisted that all is well in the region, yet they have tightly controlled access to it. That has made it hard for outside observers to get a full picture, but information about what is happening in Xinjiang has still trickled out.

At the height of its punishing campaign in the region – called “Strike Hard Campaign against Terrorism and Extremism” – the Chinese government arbitrarily detained and imprisoned an estimated one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and others in “political reeducation camps”, formal detention centres and prisons.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, residents have described police turning up with lists of names, seizing Uighurs and other Turkic people off the streets or from their homes – sometimes in the dead of night – forcibly disappearing them. Those targeted would often get detained for mundane and lawful acts, such as attending the Islamic funeral of a neighbour or having a mobile phone app that the government disliked.

In some parts of Xinjiang, entire Turkic families have been forcibly disappeared or torn apart, with the adults detained and the children held in state-run “orphanages” that aim to stamp out their culture and identity. There have been reports of torture, rape and deaths in detention.

Even those not detained have suffered immensely. The authorities have seized passports, installed high-tech mass surveillance systems in public spaces, and subjected residents to forced labour and suffocating political indoctrination campaigns.

The UN report, which validated these chilling accounts, prompted an unprecedented focus on Beijing’s horrific treatment of Uighurs. And while Beijing managed last October to narrowly spike the efforts of other governments to debate the report at the UN Human Rights Council, international concerns about the region continue to run deep. So what, if anything, has changed since the publication of the report?

Independent journalists who have managed to slip into Xinjiang have found that some political reeducation camps have been closed, although no public tally exists of how many have been shuttered.

As of mid-2022, Human Rights Watch estimated that close to half a million Uighurs and other Turkic peoples remained in prisons. There is still no indication of mass releases from prisons.

Many Uighurs abroad remain unable to get in touch with their families or receive any news of their whereabouts or wellbeing. A Uighur acquaintance recently told me, “To me, Xinjiang is only normal when I can speak with my family again.” Some whose loved ones had died learn of their passing months, sometimes years after the fact.

Xinjiang residents and tourists from other parts of China have posted bits of information that suggest that the local authorities have dialled back some intrusive security measures, describing fewer police checkpoints and less stringent security checks.

But these checks are still frequently performed, especially at hotels and malls. Buying gas still requires drivers to present multiple identification documents and to undergo facial recognition. As one Uighur netizen – a rarity in Chinese online forums – put it: “Basically if you look like an ethnic minority, they’d search you [at checkpoints] … Sometimes I feel really bad, I feel disrespected.”

Online government posts indicate that authorities continue to run a compulsory, region-wide programme known as fanghuiju (visit, benefit, and gather). This entails officials being “matched” with Turkic families to indoctrinate and surveil them, often in their own homes, to ensure that the “ethnic groups are united like a family”. Xinjiang authorities still publish photos and videos purporting to show “grateful” minority families hosting officials, eating and dancing with them.

In late 2021, Beijing replaced Xinjiang party secretary, Chen Quanguo, who spearheaded the repression, with Ma Xingrui, who governed the economically vibrant region of Guangdong. But Ma continues to put forced assimilation of Uighurs and Turkic people at the heart of his policies.

His November 2022 speech at the Xinjiang Communist Party plenum emphasised continued “counterterrorism” efforts. It stressed the “sinicisation” of Islam, a campaign that involves tightening the government’s ideological control over religion, by – among other things – reinterpreting the Quran in accordance with “socialist values”.

His government has also initiated new programmes to forcibly eliminate Turkic culture and identity. One is “using culture to nourish Xinjiang”, which aims at ensuring Uighurs have “the right views” and identify with Chinese culture and the Chinese Communist Party. Another is making sure that “all ethnic groups are embedded”, which aims to engineer ethnically mixed spaces, including residential areas.

The Chinese government has tried to convince the world that Xinjiang has moved on, that it has successfully quelled internal unrest and it is now focusing on economic development. And it has made sure that Uighurs – isolated, intimidated and silenced – are unable to challenge this narrative.

Some democratic states have issued statements condemning the abuses in Xinjiang, and have tried to bring up the issue at the UN Human Rights Council. But other concrete actions have been few and far between: only a handful of Xinjiang officials have been sanctioned, and only the United States has adopted legislation to ban products produced in the region over forced labour concerns.

But it seems the majority of the world is looking away. Political leaders from across the globe have resumed meetings with top Chinese officials after the COVID-19 pandemic ended without publicly challenging them over the crimes against humanity that have taken place in Xinjiang. This is exactly what Beijing wants: for the abuses in Xinjiang to be forgotten.

That is why concerned governments should redouble efforts for an independent international investigation into China’s crimes against humanity, which should identify officials responsible for abuses. They should impose coordinated visa and other travel bans, and targeted individual sanctions.

They should also pursue domestic criminal cases against these officials under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which allows grave international crimes to be prosecuted by any country, regardless of where the crime was committed. And they should systematically document those arbitrarily detained and imprisoned in Xinjiang, press Beijing to release them, and reunite families.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, who noted in March the need for “concrete follow-up” on the recommendations of his office’s report, should clearly set out these next steps. Among other measures, his office should continue to monitor and report on the situation in Xinjiang, keep the UN Human Rights Council informed, and support those looking for their disappeared loved ones.

These steps are as urgent now as they were a year ago. Governments that face no serious consequences for massive abuses are only emboldened to commit more of them. What could follow continued impunity in Xinjiang? We do not want to find out.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.